How Can My Firm Benefit from Hiring a Consultant?

I decided to write this post as a follow up to a few conversations I’ve had in the past two weeks. I thought the subject matter (although a bit self-serving, I’ll admit), was a great one because so many people have asked questions about When or Why to hire a consultant.

While many firms have a regular practice of hiring consultants for certain functions, it can be difficult for others to switch gears from thinking that every firm “need” is one that must be filled with a full-time body. Some AEC firms may have more than enough work to sustain a person, or an entire marketing department…others don’t have that luxury. However, not having forty hours worth of “need” per week, doesn’t mean things can’t still get done. It also doesn’t mean that billable or senior team members should spend ten of their hours picking up the slack. This is one key time when a consultant is a great option to supplement your firm’s existing capabilities.

Here are some ways that hiring a consultant can add value to your team:

Not the way you think. I would never say that a consultant could work more efficiently than any given in-house team member. The efficiency comes in to play when there are deliverables piling up that aren’t being taken care of. Many companies tend to wait until there is so much work to do that a new hire is the only way to get it all done. (Think: “We really need to be marketing to this industry, but we don’t have enough work/money to hire somebody just to do that.”) Working with a consultant is a great way to take care of those needs as soon as they arise, and only pay for the time it takes to complete them.

Hiring a consultant on retainer or a per project basis can save a significant amount of money when compared to the salary of a FTE. Variables such as level of effort, period of performance and specific deliverables are all negotiable to maximize value and there are no overhead/benefits/taxes to add to the expense of a consultant.

Single Subject Expertise
Needs occasionally arise that require a deep knowledge of one specific subject or experience with a certain type of campaign. (i.e. social media or government contracting) It may make the best business sense to bring on a consultant to work with your existing resources (whether you have a marketing team or you, yourself are the resource) to take your efforts to the next level in that area. Training existing staff to become proficient in new areas is definitely a viable option, but depending upon timing it isn’t always the best choice.

Available Resources, Research or Tools
The number of marketing services, research software and contract information portals available is mind-boggling. Your firm could invest the money to purchase or subscribe to any number of them, or you could work with a consultant that has already captured those fees in their costs. This eliminates a few additional items in your marketing budget, but also prevents you from signing up for annual subscriptions or software licenses that sit idle for 80% of the time.

While my area of focus is marketing, the above points apply to all manner of consultants, human resources and accounting are two other examples. It is a great business decision to wait until a sustainable workload exists for a new hire, but until that time, don’t let the project needs or maintenance back-up for the rest of the team.

Frank Lloyd Wright as a Marketer?

Frank Lloyd Wright, “the greatest architect America has ever produced”, is revered for his practice of organic architecture. His attention to the site and surroundings of his works often inspired the outcome of his buildings greatly.

As I read this article in the Washington Post, Wright’s Bold Vision for Reshaping the Capital, I couldn’t help but think about Wright as a business person or marketer though. To my knowledge even the world’s most famous architects usually aren’t known for their business prowess. Why not?

I believe it’s because the two ideas seem to always be placed in opposition. A great architect or artist cares only about their craft, a great business person cares only about making money. If anything, I think this article actually served to prove that the two can co-exist.

For everything that we’ve come to know of Frank Lloyd Wright’s works, this project proves his attention to efficiencies in business, marketing, sales and even bottom line.

Interesting points from the article:

  1. Wright pitched the same building design to three different locations, New York, DC and eventually Oklahoma. Organic architecture or not, this is efficient.
  2. Even with a good idea that his project would never get built, Wright went forward with it as an effort to gain media attention and break into a new market.
  3. As a way to protect his business and his investment in the project, he hired a Private Investigator to get background on his business partner.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say the Wright was as good a business person as he was an architect obviously. However, I do think the “greats” had a little better grasp on their marketing and brands than we hear about in school.

Clear Ways to Measure the Success of Your Marketing Efforts

Proving the success of your marketing efforts can be a moving target. While most AEC businesses wish it was as simple as “Hi, I’m calling because I saw your ad…” it rarely is.

Because of the complex and often indirect nature of successful marketing campaigns it is important to assign accurate metrics, and those metrics shift depending on the type of marketing or campaign you’re executing. The following are different ways to define success when marketing your professional service firm.

Direct Metrics
These are the first level of data available from marketing efforts. Direct metrics would include new leads from advertising, click-throughs, new contacts/opportunities from conferences and Google Analytics. These are often what people look for at the end of the year, or “budget time” but they are far from the only way to determine success.

Market Comparisons
Market comparisons may seem like a “soft” metric, but in actuality they can be quite telling when used appropriately. Comparing company growth against industry averages is especially helpful in slower economies or times of decline. While your firm may have set an objective for 10% growth, not meeting that doesn’t mean that marketing efforts were ineffective. If industry revenue is down 10% for the year, then just maintaining company size is a success. Additionally, market comparisons have to be done over an extended period of time for them to be valuable. Since marketing isn’t the same thing as sales, there could be 6 months or more before the impacts are seen for a professional service provider.

Campaign Goals
The other side of the coin from market comparisons are internal campaign goals. Campaigns are designed to have a beginning and an ending with clear goals. Those goals may be as bottom line-related as new contracts, but may also be more relationship-oriented like network developed or other results for a social media effort.

There is a reason that PR agencies exist. Earned media is extremely valuable and is a fantastic reputation builder. Earned media placements such as mentions in trade magazines, or at best feature stories, are often more likely to drum up a lead than advertising. Social media campaigns can produce a different type of buzz, but still equally as valuable. The quantity and quality of placements, retweets, followers and press mentions are crucial metrics to monitor.

Launching and executing a successful marketing effort doesn’t always equal an immediate increase in revenue. However, when looking at the entire picture and evaluating by the right metrics, it’s very possible to determine a clear success when you have one.

What to ask for in a business development person.

I know hiring a business development person CAN work…but often it doesn’t. With firms across the country looking for new ways to bring in contracts, a business development person is a likely scenario for many. If your business, whether an architecture/engineering firm or construction company, plans to hire a business development person, here are some things to demand for success.

1. “Set up meetings with true potential clients, not just partners.”
Partnering is an ESSENTIAL way to develop new business sometimes, especially when looking into a new industry or target market. However, meetings where the other party has a vested “selling” interest themselves are only one piece of the puzzle. If your new BD person communicates what you do in a way that clients want to hear, eventually they will get in the door with actual clients.

2. “After three to six months, know our capabilities.”
By definition, you probably aren’t hiring an architect, engineer or builder to do your business development, you’re hiring a sales person. Three to six months is a more than reasonable learning curve for them to become comfortable discussing your capabilities as a company though. If after that amount of time they are still asking questions on what you can do in-house versus subbing out, they haven’t taken the time to learn your business well enough.

3. “Ask for our marketing plan, strategy or specific goals.”
A business development person should be confident in their ability to succeed as long as they are given the right tools. Those tools have to include measurable goals and a marketing plan or strategy to guide their efforts. If a new BD person walks in the door and doesn’t ask for those, or at least develop some of their own, you need to provide them.

4. “Work within our marketing language.”
If you’ve positioned yourself as an innovative problem solver your new BD person shouldn’t say you’re a cost-efficient design alternative. Once you’ve briefed them on how you want clients to perceive you, preferably with a well developed message platform, they should have a clear framework on how to communicate with new leads.

While business development people often tend to operate on an island because of their singular mission, they need the same guidance and support as any other employee. Make sure you don’t cycle through sales person after sales person by giving them the tools they need to succeed.